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Watertown City Council at a standstill over vacant seat

Payne Horning
WRVO News (file photo)

Watertown’s city charter says the city councilmembers must fill any vacant seat as soon as possible. Yet, after three months of searching, they’re no closer to making a decision than when they started. Councilmember, Sarah Compo, said this vacancy is hindering the council’s efficacy.

“If the seat continues to remain vacant, you're gonna see progress kind of at a standstill,” she said.

Jeff Smith, the city’s mayor and acting fifth member of the City Council, agreed with Compo.

“In the interest of the council, it would have been best to have filled it already,” he said.

When Jesse Roshia, the previous councilmember, resigned, Smith asked the current councilmembers to submit a list of their top few candidates who’d applied. He then picked any unanimously selected applicants to be considered.

Councilmember Lisa Ruggiero didn’t agree with that methodology.

“We have a new mayor and he did not believe in interviewing everybody,” said Ruggiero.

In early-March when they narrowed their search down to two possible candidates, Ben Shoen and Amy Horton, to fill the position, both Smith and Compo voted to appoint one of them.

“It's not an easy thing to put yourself out there for city council, and I was appreciative that they did,” said Compo. “But unfortunately, it didn't work out with them getting a majority of the people on council to support them.”

Along with their two “yes” votes were two “no” votes from councilmembers Ryan Henry-Wilkinson and Ruggiero.

Ruggiero, who is running for reelection this year, said a large part of why she voted “no” was because she felt the mayor wasn’t receptive to the top choices she and her colleagues submitted.

“Councilman Henry-Wilkinson and myself thought that that the people that we submitted to be interviewed would be the ones that we would get to interview,” she said.

Henry-Wilkinson, who decided not to run for reelection in November, wanted to consider all candidates.

“I want to make sure that I, you know, I feel confident in my decision about who we're going to appoint to that post,” he said. So they voted “no” and the mayor opened up the candidacy pool to all who wish to apply.

Now, the new plan is for the councilmembers to pitch possible candidates for interviews, but Compo and Smith said it’s not working too well.

“To my knowledge, the individuals on council who were not satisfied with those candidates have not suggested anybody else to be interviewed,” said Compo.

“I've offered a couple of names,” said Smith. “I haven't reached out to those people because I want to make sure there's a consensus from the council, and they haven't given me a yes or a no yet.”

While the councilmembers are all frustrated that the vacant seat remains, Compo said this process is better than the last time someone resigned mid-term, which is how she got her position in 2019.

“I felt that the process was okay, but I don't think it was as good as it could have been,” she said. “One of the things that I experienced as a candidate was a very, I guess what I would say is kind of an unusual and unfair circumstance to be interviewed in.”

She said that time, they interviewed all of the applicants in the same room so she felt others could easily steal or build off of her answers.

Despite this clash between councilmembers, Compo said it’s not personal–it’s just business.

“...and then after the meeting, you know, it's kind of like flipping a light switch, we can move on and have conversations about things that aren't work-related,” she said.

This appointment is an interim position until the November election. That means Watertown can expect two primaries in June, one for the remainder of this seat and one for Henry-Wilkinson’s. Making it the first double-city council election in the city’s history.

Madison Ruffo received a Master’s Degree from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, where she specialized in audio and health/science reporting. Madison has extensively covered the environment, local politics, public health, and business. When she’s not reporting, you can find Madison reading, hiking, and spending time with her family and friends.